Archive for the history Category

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Michael J. Neufeld

Posted in biography, books, history with tags , on May 3, 2010 by Matt

Wernher von Braun was one of the preeminent technological figures of the second half of the 20th century, and the man for whom the term “rocket scientist” was largely coined, regardless of the fact he considered himself a rocket engineer, rather than a scientist. He’s apparently also, with Edward Teller, one of the motivator’s for President Eisenhower’s parting warnings against the influence of the military-industrial complex; and one of the inspirations for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He is also one of the most successful engineering leaders of history, having led the development the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo moon-landing missions to orbit, and which never failed in operation.

Continue reading


The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes

Posted in history, history of technology with tags on December 27, 2009 by Matt

Dating from 1986, this is a massive (near 800 pages) popular history of the World War II atomic bomb project. The focus is on the American effort, though there are brief detours into German and Japanese nuclear research. There’s also substantial background material on nuclear physics beginning with J. J. Thomson in the 1890’s.

The book takes the stories of Leo Szilard and Neils Bohr as central threads in the overall story. Bohr’s importance develops from his philosophical idea of “complementarity”, by which he not only subjugated the wave-particle duality, but also other apparently contradictory but ultimately complementary ideas such as super weapons and world peace. Throughout the book, complementarity is a standard against which the ideas of other physicists are compared.

In the case of Szilard, Rhodes credits him as one of the first to recognize the potential power to be released by nuclear physics, and its possible impact on human politics. From early days, and taking his inspiration in part from H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel The World Set Free, Szilard advocated a world government (obviously never realized, but still promising as the books story closed in the 1950’s) as the only way to control the vastly dangerous new technology predicted to emerge from the atomic nucleus.

Of course, there’s also plenty of detail on the Manhattan Project itself. And, mostly to show that the Americans were much further ahead of their competition than they realized, a few glimpses at vastly smaller and less well-funded German and Japanese bomb programs. The vast effort needed to extract the fissionable material from endless tons of raw uranium could only have been accomplished by the industrial powerhouse USA at that time. And its (somewhat) comforting to consider whether even today a “rogue state” could actually accumulate nuclear weapons in any quantity, although its also a frightening thought how much technology might have improved in the past 60 years.

An epilogue describes the beginnings of the nuclear nonproliferation efforts of the physics community, as well as continuing weapons work following the war, up to the point of the first Soviet a-bomb explosion and the first American h-bomb tests.

The important role of the bomb in ending World War 2, the potential ramifications if events had come out differently (what if the first nuclear war had involved not two weapons, but dozens or hundreds?) , and the influence of the bomb on the remainder of 20th century history, make this an important history to understand. And indeed the new danger, mostly unforseen in 1986, of smaller states obtaining nuclear weapons means this history is still relevant today, and this book is an excellent introduction covering the topic in both great breadth and also substantial depth.

Edward Teller, the Real Dr. Strangelove, Peter Goodchild

Posted in books, history, history of technology with tags , on October 17, 2009 by Matt

Edward Teller is a giant in the history of the 20th Century. He is a central figure in the story of the Physicists coming down from the ivory tower to create the weapons that defined the second half of the century as the “atomic age”. Teller is maybe most commonly examined as an antagonist in the epic and theatrical tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer (about which, more someday…), and his attitude does reflect a contrary view to Oppenheimer’s, but his influence continued long after Oppenheimer was pushed off the stage.

Teller began his career as a brilliant physicist who collaborated with many of the early investigators of quantum mechanics, and contributing a couple of key results himself. Pushed out of Europe by the anti-semitism of the ’30’s, he came to the U.S., and when war came, he naturally and enthusiastically joined the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons.

In the Manhattan Project, Teller was somewhat sidelined because he hoped to bypass fission weapons and begin developing a fusion weapon (the H-bomb, or “super”) immediately. After the war he continued to work on the H-bomb project, although conflicts with his former colleagues at Los Alamos led him to push for the creation of the new national lab at Livermore, which he joined. Later in his career he became a political advocate for weapons research, weapons testing, and later for the SDI or “Star Wars” defense system created under Ronald Reagan.

This biography paints a portrait of a genius, committed to the security of his adopted country, but with two great flaws. Goodchild is really only explicit about describing the first of these, but he might have had both in mind as he draws together multiple threads of Teller’s life to demonstrate them both.

Continue reading

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter

Posted in books, history, linguistics with tags , on March 22, 2009 by Matt

I saw this book in the store, and of course I was immediately grabbed by its fantastic title. After reading a couple of paragraphs I knew I had to read the whole thing.

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter shows that the grammar of English (as opposed to its vocabulary) has been much more influenced by contact with other languages than is widely recognized. McWhorter argues first that the Celts, who inhabited Britain before the invading Angles and Saxons brought the seeds of English there, have influenced the language more than is usually acknowledged, but these influences have been mostly neglected because they affect grammar rather than vocabulary, which is easier to study.

The second influence McWhorter explores is that of the Vikings who invaded Britain beginning in the 8th century. Since these Old Norse-speaking invaders would have learned English as adults, they would have spoken a simplified form of the language, with fewer word endings marking case (subject, object, etc), for example. These changes only became apparent in the written record with the rise of Middle English as a literary language in the 12th century. McWhorter argues that written Old English was a scriptural language largely divorced from the contemporary spoken English, much like medieval Latin or classical Chinese. Only when the written language began to more closely reflect the spoken one, in Middle English, hundreds of years after the changes actually happened, did these simplifications appear in the written record.

In demonstrating that these causalities have been dismissed by mainstream linguistics, McWhorter walks a thin line. He wants to show that he’s considered the prior literature, and that his ideas are original, but he has to avoid boring readers who aren’t interested in this academic debate. Mostly he succeeds, although the occasional arguments that have no use but to establish academic precedence are somewhat distracting when they occur.

A late chapter investigates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely demolishing the idea that the grammar of our language can enforce certain “channels” of thought. I read most of the chapter thinking “but,… but,…” thinking of examples of vocabulary that at least greatly simplifies thinking about certain concepts (for example, bokeh in photography was largely ignored by westerners until the desire to consider the idea was so great that we adopted the word for it from the Japanese) until McWhorter got around to conceding that vocabulary does have some influence on our ability to reason in detail.

Overall, a really interesting book, and one that added a lot to my understanding of where the English language comes from.

P.S. McWhorter gets extra bonus points for this editorial on NPR about the recent change in the meaning of the word “troop”. I initially had much the same thought — using “troop” to indicate a single person rather than a group of them, is somewhat demeaning to those people, especially since we often use the word to talk about soldiers who’ve been killed in battle. I’m somewhat more accepting of the word now, seeing as we do seem to need some word to talk about armed forces members without distinguishing between soldiers, seamen, marines, and airmen; for example, when we don’t know for sure which branch of service as given “troop” was part of.

Oppenheimer bio on PBS

Posted in history, history of technology on January 31, 2009 by Matt

PBS in the last week aired a new documentary, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that captures well the great importance of Oppenheimer’s life in recent history, and how his story reflected the history of the world around him.

Oppenheimer’s story is one of the great parables of 20th century history. He grew up in an environment that encouraged careful consideration of morality and ethics. He breezed through school, struggling only in the laboratories of Cambridge, and became a respected academic as a professor at Berkeley and Cal Tech. He read widely in philosophy and eastern religion, but was involved in politics mainly as a sympathizer with various “causes” of the time. Then, during the war, he was scientific director of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb, and advocated for its use in the war. After the war, he became a respected advisor to the government on nuclear and scientific issues. But, when he advocated diplomacy with the Soviets to regulate development of the “super” or hydrogen bomb, the H-bomb’s supporters dug up incidents from his past to paint him as a Communist, and drove him out of the government. I can think of no other biography that so clearly illustrates the hazards of attempting to live a life based on nuanced convictions; and the danger to society of losing its greatest potential leaders if we allow zealots and partisans of any kind to villify the advocates of a carefully chosen middle path.

Compared to the biography American Prometheus, one of whose authors is interviewed in the film, The Trials is naturally not as complete, since two hours of television can’t possibly deliver the same depth as a 600 page book. The documentary also puts substantially more emphasis on the difficulties of Oppenheimer’s personality, his vicious verbal put-downs of fellow academics and clumsy relations with women, all perhaps rooted in a hidden lack of confidence. The television film is also less sympathetic to Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, who is descibed as “an additional burden” during their years at Los Alamos.

The documentary does well at compressing the story of Oppenheimer’s youth, and detailing his early scientific life. It also gives a clear account of the reasons for his choice as Los Alamos lab director. In explaining the details of Oppenheimer’s feud with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss, the film is somewhat less than detailed about Oppenheimer’s position in relation to H-bomb development and diplomatic alternatives to maintain a balance of power with the Soviets without creating the super-weapon. Strauss’s and Teller’s enmity in the end led to his losing his security clearance and thus his position as advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission.

In addition to American Prometheus, there are of course many other biographies available, and in fact the transcript of the hearings that led to Oppenheimer’s dismissal from government was also published by the Atomic Energy Commission. Probably one of my dumbest shopping moves ever was not buying the transcripts when I saw them at BookBuyers used books in Mountain View. However, if you don’t have time for a book, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an excellent introduction into one of the most important stories in history, and highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of science, World War II, or the cold war.

William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary

Posted in history, history of technology with tags , , , , on January 20, 2009 by Matt

note: Learned my first blogging lesson: Don’t post too quickly… after sleeping on this, I realized it could benefit from substantial revision.

Berlin Diary is a record of Shirer’s six years as a CBS radio reporter in Europe, as the Nazi occupation developed. It is also largely a history of Nazi propaganda and how it led the German people to war and villainy against the minorities among them. Americans often forget the history of the origins of the second World War, and of the first two years of the war, when America remained neutral. Here we see these years, until December of 1940, from the point of view of an anti-Nazi, but officially neutral, American observer.

As read today, the book chronicles an inevitable march of events, as the German support of the Spanish Fascists, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, and the capture of the Sudetenland and Anschluss of Austria, without significant opposition from France or England (or the U.S.) leads to the eventual outbreak of war on the invasion of Poland, then months of “Phoney War”, and finally the invasion and collapse of Holland, Belgium, and then France. The book ends with Germany and the U.K. engaged in a war of bombers and propaganda, with Shirer leaving Germany feeling censorship had tightened to the point of making his position as a reporter irrelevant. Of course, when written, this was all current events, and part of the public debate in America on joining the war.

Shirer gives us a view of the Germans’ reactions and attitudes as this history unfolded. He also highlights the role of propaganda in forming German public opinion. Shirer shows how even when people don’t trust their news sources, knowing they are providing only propaganda, they are still influenced by them. He shows how the Nazis led Germans to believe that violence was justified in response to any slight against Germany, but that other nations were foolish to defend themselves with force against German invasion.

These elements of the story are probably the most valuable today. They show how dehumanizing our neighbors enables us to act horrifically, and they probably apply to every international (or civil) conflict that has lead to war since Shirer’s time.

Shirer also discusses the censorship he had to work under as a broadcaster. For instance, at some point the Germans realized that the term “Nazi” had acquired a negative connotation in the U.S., so they forbid him to use it in his broadcasts. Once the war had started, and British bombers were attacking Berlin regularly, they supplied the broadcast studio with a special “lip mic” that required Shirer to talk so close to the microphone that the outside sounds of falling bombs and anti-aircraft fire could not be heard, thus avoiding the perception that England could successfully attack them.

One omission seems strange today: the status of Jews in Hitler’s Germany is mentioned only obliquely. Shirer did investigate, and report on, Nazi exterminations of the mentally disabled, but events such as Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, in which Germans rioted across the company and tens of thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps, are utterly ignored. Shirer only seems to notice the flood of refugees attempting to leave Europe (and finding few safe harbors) as the German army pushed outward. Was Shirer unaware of the extent of Nazi persecution, or did he think these crimes were so monstrous they could not be believed by his audience in America? Did he think that emphasis on the fate of Europe’s Jews would not be received sympathetically, and thus engaged in a bit of propaganda himself by downplaying it in the book?

In a much less momentous aspect, the book is also fascinating from the point of view of history of technology, because it goes into detail about the difficulty of broadcasting with the technology of the day, and some of the innovations Shirer (with colleague Edward R. Murrow) introduced to radio news reporting. At the time, broadcast facilities were limited to only a few stations in each European country, and Shirer had to have the cooperation of the German broadcast service to transmit his “talks” to the CBS New York station by shortwave for re-broadcast in America. Before they were invaded, Shirer made a point of encouraging Czech and Polish authorities to complete their own shortwave facilities to enable communication with the west in the event of war.

In the methods of broadcast news, Shirer also describes innovations made while he was in Berlin. For example, when he was hired, CBS’s policy was that its own news employees would not speak on the air, but only invite others, mostly newspaper journalists, to speak. Shirer (again, with Murrow) realized that in the event of war the newspapers would not scoop themselves by allowing their reporters to give their stories on the radio, and so managed to get the CBS rule changed at roughly the time of the Austrian Anschluss.

All-in-all, this 69-year-old book is still engaging, illuminating both the brutal consequences of propaganda-fueled nationalism, and, in a secondary thread of history, the technical means of carrying the news across continents. The Nazis may have employed propaganda in its most extreme forms, but this book should remind us to step back once in a while from everything we read, most importantly from news reflecting views we believe in ourselves, and check if we’re being manipulated by emotional words, selective reporting, or even outright lies.

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

Posted in books, history with tags , on January 10, 2009 by Matt

My first book of the year, and I won’t be surprised if it’s the most fascinating one I read all year.

The book has two parts. In the first, Robb examines the character of the various regions of pre-industrial western Europe that would eventually compose themselves into what we now call France. In the ages before the Revolution, the typical paysan‘s world was limitted to his own pays, or more-or-less the area from which the bells of his village church could be heard. Each pays, socially and economically seperated from its neighbors, could develop its own customs, its own dialect, and its own identity. Furthermore, isolated as they were, and with population and resources spread out practically to the point of invisibility, the rural population was largely ignored by contemporary powers-that-be and the history-writers who followed.

In the second part of the book, we see how these disunited pays were joined together to form what we now know as France. Robb shows how this process was not easy and not uniform, with endless variation in the speed and degree of acceptance of French identity in the different regions. Only the increasing availability of transportation by trains and bicycles, and the explicitly nationalistic propaganda emanating from the central government (the better to encourage sacrifice for the national interest in the event of war) were able to complete the process of unifying the country.

Interesting threads of the narrative and digressions include the status of the cagots, a persecuted minority now largely forgotten; the role of tourism in developing commerce between the French center and the regions; and of course the importance of the bicycle in speeding communication and the Tour de France in creating a national spectacle. Early in the book is a look at the distribution of the dialects (patois) of France and the corresponding variations in agriculture and customs of their speakers.

A few minor quibbles: Robb begins the book with a prologue in which he says that much of the book was informed by his experience touring the country by bicycle, but until the next to last chapter he makes only oblique references to this experience — I had expected cycling to be something of a unifying theme for the book.

Also, in several places there are explicit references to other parts of the book using phrases like “throughout the remainder of this part of the book” and explicit cross-references to other chapters that are jarring in their pedantic directness amid the otherwise smooth narrative tone.

Regardless of any minor defects, this is a fantastic book, and well worth your time. Even for readers who aren’t especially interested in French history, this is an interesting case study in the variations of culture in pre-industrial Europe, and the tremendous portion of human activity usually neglected by what we call “history”.